Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Bush Doctrine: DOA at DOD? Part I

Defense Secretary Gates continues to act and speak in ways that justify Obama's decision to keep him on. His worth has been proven, thus far, by his willingness to champion some worthy goals for which Obama could use an ally like Gates who can provide bi-partisan cover and insider credentials. Those objectives would include: making needed cuts to the defense budget, withdrawing forces from Iraq, and re-establishing the balance between the Department of Defense and the State Department in terms of those agencies' respective policy portfolios. Recently, Gates discussed the general parameters of the Bush Doctrine (via) in a way that only adds to his value above and beyond the aforementioned areas:

"The lessons learned with the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction and some of the other things that happened will make any future president very, very cautious about launching that kind of conflict or relying on intelligence," Gates told PBS television in an interview.

Any future president is "going to ask a lot of very hard questions and I think that hurdle is much higher today than it was six or seven years ago," he said.

His comments came in response to questions about the lessons of the Iraq conflict and the controversial "Bush doctrine," which asserts the right to take preemptive action to prevent a terrorist strike [ed note: No, the Bush Doctrine asserts the right to take preventive action, big difference]. [...]

"I think that the barrier first of all will be are we going to be attacked here at home. As one of the thresholds," he said. "And then the quality of intelligence would be another."

This evisceration of the Bush Doctrine will come as welcome news to those concerned with the prospect of a potential armed clash with Iran over its nuclear program, as Gates seems to be drawing a couple of lines in the sand (which I will discussed in reverse order): First, the intelligence on a given threat will have to be highly reliable - not speculative. It should be noted that the current consensus in the intelligence community is that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program.

Second, and much more important, is the proviso that even if there is evidence that a particular state may possess - or is close to possessing - nuclear weapons (or is supportive of terrorist groups or is problematic in some other way), government leaders must also determine the likelihood that we will be attacked "here at home" by that state or its terrorist allies (if any).

That second level of assessment is crucial. One of the more important lessons from the Iraq war debacle that frequently gets lost in the debate regarding the quality (or manipulation) of pre-war intelligence on Saddam's WMD is that even if Iraq did have some chemical and biological weapons, the invasion would have still been a colossal mistake. Saddam posed no immediate, or even foreseeable future, threat to the United States.

Saddam had no meaningful ties to al-Qaeda. In fact, al-Qaeda was extremely hostile to the Baath Party's secular ideology making their cooperation unlikely (though not impossible). But any slight fear of a potential collaboration involving WMD should have been dismissed given that any such cooperation would have sealed Saddam's fate, and self-preservation was Saddam's foremost concern. Along these lines, his moribund WMD programs were coveted as a means to secure his regime and deter would-be aggressors in the region (and beyond), not as some means to lash out at the world.

Even if Saddam were left in power, and even if he subsequently reactivated his nuclear program, it would be highly implausible to conclude that Saddam would then spend untold billions, endure international ostracization, sanctions and other hardships to, somehow despite all those obstacles, acquire a nuclear weapon. And if he did, it would be even more implausible to think that he would give it away to a group like al-Qaeda (under the nose of US surveillance) in the hope that al-Qaeda could somehow smuggle the weapon into the United States and detonate it.

Similarly, even if Iran were to go nuclear (a less than desired outcome to be sure), such a state of affairs would not pose an immediate risk to the United States, and would not justify military engagement. The Iranian regime's primary motivation is, like that of other nuclear nations around the world, self-preservation. We have dealt with hostile or semi-hostile nuclear states such as the USSR, Mao's China, North Korea, Pakistan and others. There is absolutely no reason to think that a potentially nuclear Iran poses a more immediate risk justifying preemptive military action, especially given the difficultly in creating a weapons delivery system capable of deployment against the United States.

But while Gates might be making all the right noises concerning the framework to apply when judging the advisability of future military action, such a shift in paradigms does little to address the extent to which the U.S. should perpetuate military engagements that are already underway in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In Part II, I'll try to address my concerns with respect to the Obama administration's policies in regard to those conflicts.

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